The Truth Trap January 26, 2011Posted by Dan R. Dick in Critical Thinking, Personal Reflection, U.S. Culture.
Tags: Biblical interpretation, Theology
I was driving up to Appleton, Wisconsin the other day for a meeting and I tuned into a Christian radio station, where a very passionate young man was teaching a Bible study. His topic was “God’s Absolute Truth,” and he was making a case for there being one absolute, indisputable, eternal truth that comes from God. His points about truth: universal, never changes, not-debatable, not open to interpretation, discernible through prayer (not dependent on I.Q., age or experience). As I listened, questions mounted. Even if truth is absolute, is it not impacted by our cognitive development? Is “truth” the same for a five-year-old as it is for a twenty-five-year-old or a seventy-five-year-old? Does learning impact our understanding of truth? For example, does the knowledge of germs and bacteria change what we call “truth?” Doesn’t geography, culture, history, environment condition truth at all? “It snows in January,” is a “true” statement in Wisconsin, not so much in New South Wales.
The young man on the radio used scripture to “prove” his claims of truth — including the idea that women should keep silent in church and that it is “true” that women should not be ordained as pastors. (I Timothy 2:12) He explained that this historic, cultural and geographic context has nothing to do with the “truth” of this passage — it is universal, eternal, absolute, and anyone who does not abide by it does not abide in “the truth.” For me, this is a real slippery slope. I am not sure that there isn’t such a thing as absolute truth; I am positive that we, as human beings, lack the knowledge, wisdom, and insight to grasp what it might be (even with the aid of prayer).
If there is such a thing as absolute truth, it is a treasure, not a weapon of mass destruction. I cannot believe that “truth” exists to allow one side to defeat another. The egotistical need to be right is a human issue. If absolute truth exists, it doesn’t make those who possess it superior, merely fortunate. And here is my bias — I think absolute truth has more to do with absolute good rather than absolute rules.
I fail the young preacher’s criteria in a big way — I don’t claim to “know” truth. I merely claim that I “believe” certain things to be true. I believe that grace is truer than judgment. I believe love is truer than condemnation. I believe acceptance is truer than division and alienation. I believe forgiveness is truer than vengeance. I believe compassion is truer than selfishness. I believe there is greater truth in mercy and justice than rules and law. Yet, I must acknowledge that all of these things are “true” in our scriptures. My mind is simply not advanced enough to grasp the totality of all that is “true.” Opposites and contradictions, mutually exclusive co-existent realities, irresolvable ambiguities — these are all aspects of truth that elude me, yet I cannot read the entire corpus of Hebrew and Christian scriptures without constant encounters with all of them. It humbles me to confess, I cannot resolve all the mysteries to the point that I can stand against another person to say, “I am right and you are wrong,” when it comes to scriptural interpretation. I may passionately believe that child abuse, spousal abuse, pillage, genocide, and human trafficking are abominable, but our Bible not only allows for, but often encourages just these things. I “believe” the truth of universal civility and common decency, but there is nothing that makes such a belief “absolute truth” for everyone.
Why are we so obsessed with “truth?” I personally don’t think we care much about truth. I think the human motivations are to be right, and at our best, to be faithful. We want to know what God wants of us and we need to craft a set of rules and values that define us. This leads us to a normative perspective: if it is right for us, it must be right in general, and therefore right for everyone. There are obvious and immediate flaws to such logic, but so what — we’re human (what’s logic got to do with anything?). “Truth” is important to us as possessed knowledge — if we have the truth we are above reproach. We are right. We are brilliant. We are holy. Trouble is, it’s all an illusion. The entire reason we need salvation through faith in Jesus Christ is that we are incomplete on our own. The human pursuit of knowledge, wisdom, virtue and truth to attain salvation (works righteousness) is a fool’s game. We are none of those things, if we’re honest with ourselves… and that’s the absolute truth.